At age 62, Nigel Havers might seem long in the tooth to be playing witty young bachelor Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's beloved comic masterpiece that opens July 17 at the Harold Pinter Theatre. But there’s a reason for the apparent age-inappropriateness on view in director Lucy Bailey’s new revival. The ever-debonair actor chatted with Broadway.com about his idea to assemble an older cast and reflected on his vast career, which ranges from the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire to Downton Abbey.
Your castmates are, in almost all cases, too old for their roles: You, for instance, are twice the age of most Algernon Moncrieffs.
Don’t I know it, but that in fact is the very point of the production. The idea with our Importance of Being Earnest is that we are the Bunbury Company of Players, who are a gathering of amateur-dramatics—or, as they like to call themselves, non-professional—players who have been doing this particular play every five years for 30 years now and have now all grown into their characters.
As you have yourself, since you first played Algernon 32 years ago in a National Theatre production starring Judi Dench.
That’s right, and I had always had it in my mind that I wanted to do the play again; it’s just taken 32 years! What happened was that I was looking for a play to do with [producer] Rupert Gavin and thought to myself, “Maybe this is the time to revisit The Importance, and wouldn’t it be fun to have Martin [Jarvis, who played Jack Worthing both in 1982 and now] along, too?” So I took Martin to lunch and he said, “You’ve got to be mad, we're too old”—which is when I told him of the specific idea I had for this production.
So are audiences still in store for the immortal Wilde comedy they know and love?
Oh, this is absolutely the play, pretty much without a single word cut: The play completely exists but, with a frame around the first hour or so to explain why it is that we older actors are doing it. But by the time you get to the second act, what you’re watching is absolute Oscar Wilde. It’s as if the Bunbury Players have earned the right to play Oscar’s play.
This sounds like the sort of approach that might have tickled Wilde himself.
Let us hope so, but also the fact is that the play is so strong and witty and charming that it can take what we are doing with it, in the same way that Shakespeare can take any number of different approaches as well. What’s lovely is that we had Oscar Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, in to see us the other day, and he loved it—he was absolutely enthralled. He wrote me a note at [intermission] saying “I’m in,” so I invited him after to come and meet the cast.
Do you think you’re a different Algy now than you were 32 years ago?
Inevitably, though not in the way that you might think. This is a much more high-octane production than the one we did with Peter Hall at the National—it’s much more physical and energetic, even though we’re much older. A lot of that is about Lucy [Bailey, the director] coming in with quite a lot of physical direction. I think it’s important to her that we all feel as if we’re still in the sexual market, even though we’re in our 60s! [Laughs.]
Does this have an element of getting your own back in a show business climate that makes it hard for actors to find work as they get older?
This has literally nothing to do with being older and missing out on parts; it’s been about wanting to play this part again and to do it again with Martin Jarvis, who was just the ultimate Jack—and still is.
You don’t feel as if you’re battling ageism in your profession?
Not remotely. All that happens as you get older is that you get on with it; you find the older parts.
You do like to stick with plays you like—Yasmina Reza’s Art, for instance.
I played Serge in Art 788 times over five years—four years on tour on and off and then the West End for over a year. I did that play more than anyone with all sorts of different actors and couldn’t put the play down. And I would do it again like a shot. There’s no age limit on that [laughs]!
What did you think of the 2012 stage adaptation of Chariots of Fire, given that you co-starred in the film?
I absolutely loved it. I thought Ed [Hall, the director] did a great job, and it was only unfortunate that the play didn’t do so well at the box office when London emptied out over the Olympics. People thought that might happen and it did.
Did you ever consider being in the play, as one of the older characters this time around?
You know, I was asked to do it at one stage but I thought I wouldn’t—though I don’t entirely know why. But it was wonderful having Tam Williams play the part I had on screen as Lord Andrew Lindsay. [Havers’ late second wife Polly was Williams’ aunt.]
You appeared in Empire of the Sun with a young Christian Bale. Could you tell then he would become an Oscar-winning star?
[Laughs.] I do remember a very ambitious young boy who was also a very good actor, and I do recall thinking that Christian would probably go far—he was absolutely dedicated to becoming a movie star at age 11.
You’ve been an ongoing British presence across the years. How are you best-known these days in the U.S.?
Oh, for Downton Abbey, without any doubt! I did a two-hour [episode] for Christmas as a wicked earl [the aristocratic Lord Hepworth], and it really was great fun to do, not least because Julian [Fellowes, the TV series’ creator], is an old friend of mine. People ask whether I might be brought back, which I suppose is possible, though the show now is coming to an end.
There's always Oscar Wilde’s play! Do you envisage yourself returning to The Importance again in another 32 years?
[Laughs.] Can you imagine?